There is something empowering about piecing a meal together from a mosaic of small plates. An unusual dish that one might not want to pull the trigger on for an entrée can have far more appeal as an appetizer; small plates afford us the opportunity to take more chances. In a sense, a meal becomes a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure prix fixe spectacular. Several restaurants around town have experienced success with a broadening small-plate selection – Cochon comes to mind – augmenting a limited but established core of tapas-style destinations. Here is the rundown on a few of them.
Each time I return to Rio Mar I am reminded again of just how much I like it. There really is no place else like it in the city – Chef Adolfo Garcia’s innovative Portuguese cuisine offers an alternative to the ubiquitous Creole and Cajun seafood preparations found elsewhere in New Orleans. And while their Tapas Lunch menu (served on weekdays) is the best time to come for small plates, many of these dishes appear on the dinner menu as well as either appetizers or as components of a Tapas Platter.
The Tapas Platter offers a compelling cross-section of the tapas menu including boquerones, mild white anchovies steeped in vinegar and served on a toasted bread round. Oblong olives, meaty enough to be carved with a steak knife, are cured in-house using a medley of spices. Cold meats include ruby-red slices of lean lomo and two kinds of chorizo, including a Chorizo Catalan, akin to an Italian salumi, and a Chorizo Riojano, which is more unctuous and spiced with lots of paprika and garlic. If it is available, try the Iberico Ham, made in Spain from acorn-fed Black Iberian pigs. It is expensive but worth the splurge.
Additionally, Rio Mar offers four tasty ceviches. My favorite is the Panamanian version, made with puppy drum marinated in lime juice, onion and habanero pepper. The drum stands up well to the acidity, maintaining its chewiness without becoming mushy, reminding me a lot of the type of conch salad served in seafood joints in Key West. A new dish of pickled cucumber, fresh cantaloupe and blue crabmeat dressed with mint-infused oil, was surprisingly good. Served as a special at the time, our server mentioned that this dish was becoming popular and would likely roll over onto the main menu. I hope it does – it’s tasty. Also tasty are the Bacalaitos, salt-cod fritters – a staple of Portuguese cuisine. Here they come three to an order and are served with a garlicy saffron aioli. Save room for the desserts as well – the Tres Leches is a personal favorite, as is Margarita’s Fabulous Flan.
Part sake bar and part café, Yuki Izakaya is a first for New Orleans; a genuine Japanese Izakaya specializing in an array of small, extremely snackable plates which go hand-in-hand with the great selection of drinks. Catering primarily to the late night crowd and club-goers, it’s open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, staying open until 2 a.m. on the weekends. Dim red light and ambient music issuing from a quality sound system make this a sexy destination, with mod bar stools lacquered in candy-apple red complementing the handful of small tables.
There are neat twists on ordinary staples such as French fries, which come dusted with Shichimi (roughly a Japanese equivalent of Tony Chachere’s seasoning) and served with a tasty wasabi-infused mayonnaise. Try the Karaage, chunks of deep-fried chicken served piping hot. Yakitori, grilled chunks of marinated chicken, is another staple, served on skewers with a choice of either dark meat or kawa (skin). This is accompanied by a mound of freshly ground Szechuan peppercorn, a really neat touch that amps up the taste experience with its woodsy and citrus flavors, accompanied by the signature tingle on the tongue. If you can get past the somewhat ambivalent service and the limited seating, I think Yuki is a great addition to an already great neighborhood geared toward the late-night local crowd. Also, as of press time Yuki is cash-only, so be sure to hit the ATM before going.
West Indies Café, tucked under the St. Charles Athletic Club, is a rebranded transplant of the original Baru, which was located next to the Asian Gourmet Market out on Williams Boulevard in Kenner. I had eaten at that location a few times and greatly enjoyed it, and it’s nice to see it reappear in a location more convenient to Uptown.
As the name suggests, the menu takes cues from the Caribbean, though it remains strongly rooted in Latino cuisine. And like Rio Mar, the tapas section of the menu makes grazing fun. The Crispy Cheese offers up dice-sized cubes of pan-friend Guyana cheese mixed in with starchy chunks of yucca. The cheese squeaks when bitten, reminding me of the tasty curds popular in Quebecois cuisine. A tangy sour cream sauce comes alongside. Fish Ceviche is OK, but doesn’t measure up to the versions offered by Rio Mar. The Crab Fingers are tasty, distinguished by a vinaigrette dipping sauce seasoned with cilantro, and the Atun – seared tuna sliced and dressed with sesame oil, soy sauce and a slaw of mango and avocado – is a must-have. For diners who don’t want to share, try the Garlic Shrimp served alongside a pair of crunchy tostones and a mound of deliciously sweet coconut rice.
The granddaddy of tapas-style dining is Vega Tapas Café on Metairie Road. Along with the core menu, Chef and Owner Glen Hogh constantly offers up special menus inspired by holidays and a rotating cast of national cuisines. Hogh is curious and enthusiastic and it shows in his food – subscribe to the mailing list and you’ll see what I mean.
You can have many meals here without ever having the same dish twice. That said, I usually start with the Coriander Tuna, which is dusted with the namesake spice then lightly seared. The slices are then dressed in a vinaigrette flavored with cilantro and spicy chili oil, and a small scoop of avocado and tomato salad makes for a cooling counterpoint. The Gambas al Pil Pil, plump and deveined shrimp sautéed in an addictive brew of garlic, olive oil and smoked paprika, always leaves me wanting more.
The meat on the Moroccan Ribs falls right off the bone, making it easier to swipe it through the delicious sherry reduction on the way to your mouth. Vega’s Empanadas are good as well – flaky crescents stuffed with tender braised pork and vegetables. The pesto-like chimichurri sauce drizzled on top adds some tang and acidity, swinging the flavor in an unexpected direction.
800 South Peters St.
525 Frenchman St.
West Indies Café
1600 St. Charles Ave.
Vega Tapas Café
2051 Metairie Road